Charles Bukowski: let’s kill a few myths – THIS IS NOT A TEST #29 (transcript)

Published July 11, 2015

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Well, hi then I guess. It’s your faithful correspondent Michael Phillips, here with the latest breaking news from Greece, where the sentiment on the street can best be described as “What the fuck?” Ah, Greece. I’ve never been to Greece. It’s one of those places that’s not exactly on the way to someplace else. At least not someplace I’ve ever been. It’s really kind of hanging out there at the bottom of Europe with all of the old Soviet satellites, trudging along, trying to make things work while simultaneously taking it really easy. But you don’t care about Greece, and I don’t blame you. Well, maybe you care deeply about Greece, in which case you wouldn’t be coming to me for news about it, so either way, I think we’re good to go. I think it’s safe for us to avoid Greece. Figuratively and literally, and carry on with whatever we’re doing here.

Which is what then? Well, six months ago we talked about the rampant, destructive editing that’s scarred most of Bukowski’s posthumously published poetry, and you should go listen to that if you haven’t already heard it, I think it’s episode #2 in the dusty archive here. Today we’ll talk about Bukowski again, about the myths that have grown up around Bukowski and those that he perpetuated himself. Like any other public figure, Bukowski is tangled up in more than a few myths and misconceptions. Over at the Bukowski forum there are a lot of people who have spent a lot of time digging into these myths, and debunking a lot of them – most of them – along the way. So what we’re talking about here today isn’t the opinions of a lone crackpot, meaning me, it’s the culmination of a lot of research by a lot of people.

Let’s start with something that isn’t exactly a myth, but a misattribution: “Find what you love and let it kill you.” You’ve seen that Bukowski quote everywhere. It’s plastered across half of the planet’s Facebook feeds and it continues to grow like an unkillable weed. People get it tattooed onto their bodies, it is the mantra of many. The wise words of that craggly old gutter bard, Bukowski. Ah, gotta love him. Only Bukowski never said or wrote “find what you love and let it kill you.” It is a quote from songwriter Kinky Friedman. What’s funny about this quote and a hundred others like it, is the strange power an image file seems to have. If a quote like that is made into an image file, there are people who will refuse to believe it could possibly be wrong until the day they die. They bring the quotes to the Bukowski forum to find out which poem or book they are from and we have to tell them, “That’s not in any of the books,” or, “That doesn’t sound like Bukowski,” and they can’t accept it. “It’s everywhere,” they say, “I’ve seen it a hundred times! You assholes think you know everything!”

Well, we do think we know everything, but that’s got nothing to do with anything. We have computers and databases and collections of book pdfs that we can search in a few minutes. And we have decades of reading an author’s work, which gives you a pretty good feel for what might or might not come out of the author’s mouth or typewriter. So we’re usually right when it comes to identifying quotes. What’s interesting is how far off some of these things can be, but people still accept them as fact. Like the supposed letter that find what you love comes from. It sounds like it was written by someone whose first language is not English – “for all things will kill you, both slowly and fastly” – fastly? The formality of the letter reads like it was written by someone in India or the Philippines. It has that outsourced tech support vibe to it. But there are a lot of people who read that and believe it’s something Bukowski wrote. because someone said so on the Internet. Maybe worse, a lot of people read it and repeat it and don’t care whether the attribution is right or wrong, because, whatever, you know.

Bukowski often referred to his, “10 year drunk,” when he hit the road and drank and didn’t write. But let’s take a look at that. In 1942 Bukowski left Los Angeles. After graduating high school in 1939, Bukowski went to Los Angeles City College to study Journalism. It was during this time that his father came across his writing and didn’t really care for it. If Bukowski is to be believed his father threw the writing, along with most of Bukowski’s stuff, out on to the front lawn. After that incident he moved to a rooming house on Temple Street downtown. His mother helped him pay his rent, and he also worked in the stockroom at a Sears store during that time. He left college in June of 1941, then in December Japan bombed Pearl Harbor and America entered into WWII. Bukowski left Los Angeles shortly after that. He may well have been drunk for much of the next 10 years, there’s no way to know that, but we do know that his poems and short stories were published in five of those next 10 years; 1944, 46, 47, 48 and 51. In 1948 he wrote a letter that included, “I’m not writing much anymore,” and it was true, from 1948 to 1956 he only published in one magazine. So whether he was writing or not, we know there was an 8 year period without any publications that we know of.

But the myth of the 10 year drunk would have you believe that Bukowski was on a skid row bar stool for 10 years, like the character in the Barfly movie. No job, “on the bum” as he liked to say. When he left Los Angeles in 1942 he landed in New Orleans. We know he was there for a while because he had correspondence with the New Orleans draft board. He told them he couldn’t go to war due to his “personal philosophy.” And in 1943 he reported to that New Orleans draft board and they declared him unfit and let him go. Early in 1944 New Orleans reconsidered and wanted to reopen his case, but he had moved up to Philadelphia, where the government finally caught up with him and locked him up in a Philadelphia prison for a couple of weeks. By 1947 he returned to Los Angeles to stay, but he hadn’t been gone for five years. In fact he returned to Los Angeles a number of times during the time he was supposedly “on the bum,” in 1945 he was back long enough to get a job, but we know he was in Philadelphia in 1946. Then there’s a picture of him taken in 1947, standing in his parents yard wearing a suit and smiling. A pretty clean bum.

The point being he left Los Angeles after Pearl Harbor and tried to stay away until WWII ended, but was often back in town, either at his parents house or in a rooming house. The only years he didn’t have a Los Angeles address were 1942, 43 and 46. And the bulk of that time was spent in New Orleans and Philadelphia. We know he based the Barfly screenplay and many stories and poems written about things that happened during the same period on a certain bar in Philadelphia. But judging by his addresses he couldn’t have been in Philadelphia for more than a year, and during that time he usually had a job. So he couldn’t have been on a barstool from the minute the bar opened until it closed, not for very long anyway. So you can see that the myth of the ten year drunk has some seeds of truth – he really didn’t write much for about 8 years – the rest of it is exaggerated. I don’t doubt that everything he writes about happened, or most of it anyway, but it happened in a much shorter time span than 10 years.

It’s also interesting that after that 1948 letter where he says he isn’t writing much anymore, he kind of drops off the radar until 1954. During that five years or so he lived in Los Angeles and worked at a lot of the menial jobs that he would later write about – including being a temporary or fill-in letter carrier. In 1954 he had the bleeding ulcer that landed him in the county hospital and practically killed him. That experience got him writing again – and a little less than a year later, 10 days after being promoted to Permanent Carrier, he quit his post office job. In 1958 he went back to the post office, this time as a clerk, and kept that job for 12 years. But those years in the early 50s and the few years outside of Los Angeles when he was in his 20s were the basis for much of his writing. But the idea that there was a 10 year Barfly-type “drunk” is purely myth.

As is the myth of the Bukowski who dukes it out with someone every day, the tough guy brawler. This one is interesting because Bukowski managed to build up a myth and a reputation as a brawler without really writing much about fighting, and certainly without getting into fights that anyone ever witnessed and wrote about. In fact pretty much everyone who knew him characterized him as soft or sensitive. In a 1974 interview he admitted as much, “I realized when I broke in, I’d have to create something new to make people listen to me, so I stepped on the gas pedal, I clowned it up a little bit, to catch the public’s eye. Subconsciously I knew what I was doing – I was creating something that might be noticed. But after having broken in that way, I’m drifting away from this bad ass, tough guy shit. I’m writing more what I actually am. I might come on bad ass, but I’m really not bad ass. There goes my image! Looks like I just screwed myself. Can I retract that?”

I don’t doubt what he said there, but I also think the tough guy pose was just as much defense mechanism and something he did to get attention. It’s all there in his words, when he writes about his young daughter or how humanity has let him down again. If you walk around exhibiting that kind of sensitivity the world will stomp you to little bits. You couldn’t survive. So what better way to protect a sensitive person than with a tough facade. As Jory Sherman wrote about him, “He isn’t tough. He isn’t brutal. That’s the myth, the façade. He’s a gentle man and he can be very charming when he wants to. However, he loves to shock people […] It’s a myth he has purposefully and cleverly created.”

Another myth that Bukowski himself perpetrated was that he didn’t revise his work. He wanted you to believe that he pulled it from the typewriter and jammed it into an envelope, mailed it and forgot about it. What he didn’t know when he was building up that myth is that one day we’d have access to so many of his poem manuscripts and letters. Looking at the manuscripts you can see that not only did he revise, he reworked a lot of poems or reused elements of them, sometimes months after first writing them. Which tells us that he kept copies of his work and he wasn’t afraid to pull things out of the pile and re-use them. It isn’t something you see really often, it’s not common, but it happened enough to dispel the no-revision myth. He corrected everything, so you know he was proofreading. What’s true is that a lot of the poems, especially after he became established, went out after he corrected them and didn’t get revised. But in the manuscripts from the 1970s, when he really launched his attack on the small press scene, it’s clear that he recycled, shall we say.

Another myth ties in to Bukowski’s lifestyle and his seeming disregard for health or even life for quite a few years there. A lot of people maintain that he was on a path to an early grave and that Linda Lee saved Bukowski’s life. There are two important Lindas in Bukowski’s life, and it’s important to keep them straight, because the first Linda, Linda King, was different than the second Linda, Linda Lee Beighle. Linda King wouldn’t have tried to save Bukowski from anything, especially himself. But the second Linda, the one he ended up marrying, did try to “improve” him. And Linda did have an effect on Bukowski in many ways, some good, some less so. But overall, her effect on his health or longevity has been overstated. She may well have steered him away from hard liquor and more toward wine and beer (bear in mind also though that he was almost 60 years old when he made that change, so he may have cut down on hard liquor regardless of who was around him), but whether that added any years to his life is certainly debatable. And the truth is, Linda drank as much as Bukowski did. So steering someone from one kind of booze to another kind – you can’t really say that’s saving their life.

It seems pretty clear that moving out of Hollywood was very good for Bukowski, as fewer people who did not necessarily have his best interests at heart had access to him down in San Pedro. But Linda was not the primary motivating factor for buying a house, his accountant was. She tried to get him to buy a house further away from Hollywood than he might have otherwise, and that was beneficial to him. But the idea that they moved to San Pedro and lived happily ever after is not exactly true. They had significant fights and Linda often moved out of the house completely. The poetry collection War All The Time came out – and was named after – this period of time. So happily ever after, no. There’s a lot more to the story of their lives together at that time that will probably come to light one day, but it’s pretty clear that it was often a stressful time for Bukowski. As stressful as the endless parade of idiots showing up on his doorstep in Hollywood? Probably not. But not a picnic either. If he could have ever had a picnic where women were concerned.

In the final months of his life Linda had him taking vitamins and herbs and engaging in all manner of holistic voodoo bullshit, which doesn’t extend anyone’s life when they are that close to death. The only time things like that can be effective is when you believe in them early enough in your life, when you’re still healthy, and continue to believe in them. Then I suppose you can get some placebo benefit from them. But in the final stages of Leukemia, vitamins don’t give you anything but expensive piss. Linda also practices meditation and she convinced Bukowski to try it too, again, in his final weeks or months. I have a lot of problems with family force feeding a lot of bullshit on dying people, literally and figuratively. I know the people who are about to be left behind start to panic and you can’t blame them for trying to do things that they believe will extend the dying person’s life. But on the other hand, it isn’t really fair to the dying person, is it, to foist your voodoo onto them when they are sick and vulnerable and all they really want to do is take it easy. Bukowski did not start meditating years before he died because he thought it was a cool idea, he did it at the end, to make his wife happy. So Linda may have helped nudge Bukowski toward things that were better for him, but saving his life, no.

Okay, I saved one of the biggest myths for last. This is probably one of the most widely known and deeply ingrained Bukowski myths, but it is a myth all the same, and that is that John Martin’s offer of $100 a month late in 1969 made it possible for Bukowski to quit his job and write full time. If you haven’t heard this one, John Martin, the guy behind Black Sparrow Press, offered to pay Bukowski a quarter of his own income – which was $100 a month at the time – “for life” to quit the post office and write full time. Martin tells a colorful and fanciful tale of sitting down with Bukowski and listing out his expenses to determine what he’d need to survive. $100 doesn’t sound like much, does it? But maybe you’re thinking, “Well, 1969 was a long time ago, and with inflation it’s probably a lot…” Well it’s not a lot. About $650 is today’s dollars. Not much, is it. Would you want to – could you – live on $650 a month? In Los Angeles? So Martin’s story of listing Bukowski’s expenses and $100 covering them is fantasy. At the time Bukowski quit the post office he was paying $45 a month in child support alone, so the $100 a month story would have you believe he was actually living on $55 a month. A grown man, in Los Angeles. $55 covered his rent, food, car, utilities, liquor, envelopes, stamps, typing paper, typewriter ribbons, shoes, underwear, toothpaste…you get the point.

As a clerk with more than 10 years on the job, Bukowski’s post office job would have paid more than six times Martin’s $100, about $625 a month. So the myth would have you believe Bukowski walked away from that and was willing to live with virtually nothing because he loved writing so much. Okay. Well, a couple things here, first, Bukowski was notoriously frugal. He didn’t blow or waste a lot of money, which was pretty common among people who grew up during the depression. When Bukowski’s father died about 10 years before Bukowski left the post office, his house was sold, and Bukowski banked about $7,000 on the sale. Which would be like banking $60,000 today. For a person who has a good full time job that’s paying him the equivalent of a thousand dollars a week today, and doesn’t spend a lot of money you’d have to think most of that money was still there in the bank when Bukowski quit the post office. So it wasn’t as if that $100 was his only source of money. In addition to the house sale money in the bank, In 1971 he sold his literary archive and papers to University of California Santa Barbara for $5,000. About $30,000 today, and then in 1973 he got another $5,000 in a grant from the National Endowment of the Arts to “further his writing career.” So he was never hurting for money, and he never relied on that $100 to live. It was more symbolic than anything.

And what about a 50 year old man quitting a stable civil servant job, that took some nerve, didn’t it? Well, it would have, yes, if he was really deciding to quit for his own noble reasons. But the reality is Bukowski was a problematic employee for the post office. The FBI had investigated him for his writing, and he was often out sick, which may not be surprising considering the way he lived, but some of his physical problems were caused by the job as well. Whatever the reason, he was away from work pretty often and at the time he quit they were about to fire him anyway. They didn’t get to fire him, he quit, and that technicality and the timeline of events allowed him to make it seem like a bigger move than it was. I mean, for sure, walking away from a long time job when you’re 50 years old is crazy in most people’s book. But quitting was more of a way to avoid being fired. And saying, “I was fired when I was 50 and decided to write instead,” doesn’t sound quite as romantic.

But he did crank up the volume of his writing after leaving the post office, which was the second time he increased his efforts, the first being after the county hospital episode. His output increased, he wrote his first novel, Post Office, quickly, started writing for magazines that paid him – mainly sex magazines and weekly Los Angeles tabloids, and by 1974 he was selling 50,000 copies of his books in Europe. So the reality is he supported himself after leaving the post office, and he worked his ass off to make money. He was lucky to find an audience in Europe, because his European royalties were always much greater than his royalties from Black Sparrow. In 1972 his monthly income from Black Sparrow Press was only $300. Five years later, in 1978 – the year he bought his house – he was only making $500 a month from Black Sparrow, but his European royalties were many times that. In 1982, nearly $90,000. By 1992 his monthly income from Black Sparrow had gone up to $7,000 – but that was still less than his European royalties had been a decade earlier.

That’s a lot of numbers to keep track of, I know. But the bottom line is had Bukowski been relying on Black Sparrow and other U.S. royalties, he would have never had the house in San Pedro of the BMWs and the expensive wine. He would have survived, but he wouldn’t have been able to live the way he did. He would have still been in Hollywood and we would have never gotten those great gloating poems where he talks about buying things with cash and paying for his steaks with his VISA card. So the $100 a month for life story is a good story, but that’s all it is. As usual, if you check the reality and dig just a little bit below the surface you get the truth. And the truth can be strange. Stranger than fiction, as the kids say. There are other myths around Bukowski, that’s for sure, but we took apart a few of the main ones here, so give yourself a pat on the back. Now you are armed as a warrior for truth, just like all those people knocking on your door to tell you about JESUS think they are.

There’s a lot to talk about where Bukowski is concerned, but you won’t hear much of it here. I do a lot of work over at and on the Bukowski forum, but this thing we do here, our little weekly confab here in podcastland, podcastville, podcastia – I want that to stay separate from all of that. So we did a couple of Bukowski episodes here, but that will probably be the extent of it. Maybe there will be something to talk about when the new books come out later this year, but I doubt it. It’s Bukowski, they’re Bukowski books, I can review them right now, before I’ve even seen them. I’ll still read them, don’t get me wrong, because they are being edited by someone who cares about accuracy and believes in keeping Bukowski’s words intact. His name is Abel Debritto, and HarperColins was smart to bring him in to put the books together. Bukowski is in good hands now. It took a long time to pry him out of Martin’s greasy, bible-thumping grip, but it finally happened, so that’s worth celebrating.

So come back next time to hear about something that isn’t Bukowski related. That could be anything, couldn’t it. Dogs, concrete, airplanes, milkshakes, milk farming…why do they call it dairy farming? It’s milk farming. All the other dairy stuff is a byproduct of the milk. And who was the first person, the first human to say, “I think I’m going to stick my mouth under that thing hanging off the cow…it looks tasty!” Now there’s a pioneer. There’s a fearless motherfucker, to be sure. Okay.


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